Generally, women’s anger is viewed as a negative emotion.With woman imagined by male supremacy as negative, women’s anger is doubly negative. I see this expressed back by women who believe anger achieves nothing. In those women who cite it to silence other women out of fear and discomfort. The message being, anger has no place in women’s fight for justice. This stance annoys me. Because if this is the belief, what do we really understand about sexism? About women’s oppression?
To clarify then, I examine women’s anger from the basis that; “one of the primary functions of sexism is to police the behaviour of others”.
The oxford dictionary defines anger as; ‘a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure, or hostility.’ This seems like a rational response to male dominance, to white supremacy, to all measures, big and small, that fatten inequality. Surely. So why is women’s anger shunned? What do we understand it to be? And who benefits from this regulation?
Anger in women is negative because it is positive in men.
This is the insight from this1987 studywhich shows women and men relate differently to anger. For women, it is a virtuouspractice of self-control, which means circumventing their anger. Successful application of self-control results in no action, but this has the lingering feeling of powerlessness. Feeling doubly aggrieved. Failure could result in outbursts of tears, say, which is perceived by men as weak and manipulative. Bottom line, women do not turn their anger into action. Knowing if they were to break the rule and express anger, they would face punishment, dismissed as aggressive. Here women cannot win.
Men have the opposite experience. Expressing and acting on anger is acceptable and expected. It is a matter of identifying an appropriate opponent who “must be neither too weak nor too strong.” Social norms hinder aggressions towards women and those deemed weaker due to age, say. But in general, acts of aggression or restraint are viewed equally positive. Looked upon as either acts of heroism or maturity. Here men cannot lose.
While this study is dated and sampled on a small group of middle-class white women and men, it is applicable today. Popular culture demonstrates this. Take the TV series like Sons of Anarchywhere anger is a source of power for men. Compare that with new Charmedwhere anger in women is punishable – one of the three sisters, Mel Pruitt, discovers she can only access her magical powers when she is notangry.
Women are still failing to identify and understand the use of anger
It is no wonder women have learned to mistrust their anger. Feelings of guilt and shame follow exhibition of it.
This is the impression I was left with by Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette on Netflix. I observed a misunderstanding of anger even while it was put to use in addressing inherent sexist, racist and homophobic assumptions. Hannah, a comedian from Tasmania did this show as a farewell. She was quitting comedy. She describes her past ruled by shame and self-hatred over her sexuality. A condition some men felt justified their acts of sexual violence. She built a career on minimising these experiences in order to make people laugh. This show was her break up letter to comedy. In outlining her reasons for the breakup, she expresses anger. Making it both an informative and moving show.
This to me came across as a woman who had come to realise that suppressing her anger was working against her. This realisation drove her to break from the norm, challenging an industry built on denying a voice to stories like hers. However, she ends the show on a confusing note, stating “anger is never constructive”. Cautioning herself from spreading toxic tension that serves no purpose other than to spread blind hatred. Here, I think, she exposes both a confusion between hatred and anger, and a fearof it.
We learn nothing from our fear of anger
Audre Lorde, who was an American writer, feminist and civil rights activist, teaches us this fundamental lesson. Her work rejects this internalised belief that anger is “disruptive”, stating simply;
“everything can be used
except what is wasteful”
She goes on to impart, among others, three things. First, anger is “the grief of distortions between peers and its objective is change”. Second, anger is not hatred because hatred is; “the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its objective is death and destruction.” And third, anger is a source of knowledge and drive.
This tells me that ignoring anger is inefficient. Better to be applied to serve anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-poverty, anti-homophobic goals. Progressive goals. I am further convinced by Lorde’s assertion that the very act of expressing our anger is freeing and a source of strength. In this process, we also learn who support us and those who opposes us. This is important as we aim to connect with others.
So, what stands in the way of this?
With our resources invested in getting around our anger, in sourcing pacifiers, we apply none to grasping what this emotion is communicating. We fail to see its indication of the present danger. To understand that however limited or unlikely our vision of the future might be, our present position is untenable. That we cannot accept what is unacceptable to us. Revealing what is most essential to us. Furthermore, we fail to see that our anger is sometimes an indication that we have already paid too little attention to our emotions. We ignored the signs. This anger is therefore telling us we have over endured. This is certainly how I am beginning to understand my anger. And instead of suspecting it, I am beginning to doubt those who look to dismiss it without discussing its source nor its intent.
What do you understand of your anger?
Join me in the second part as I explore how race impacts the policing of women’s anger. And what we can learn from recent discussions on women and anger centered on Soraya Chemaly’s book Rage Becomes Her.
“Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism”